I refer here to a primary plot device in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases, a novel about the terror of the Argentine military dictatorship, 1976-83, as its minions roam the neighborhoods to gather up and “disappear” the youth. As far as we know, our missing college student is your typical disaffected dope-smoking hate-your-parents type, rather than a committed leftist. Understandably, he is upset when a favorite professor is gone from one day to the next, and even more dismayed when he and his friends are rounded up after a concert. Everyone is released but him, who is missing his identification card. Why? Because after one of his many conflicts with his father, he stormed out of his house without his papers.
And what a father we have! A “son of a whore,” from the wrong side of the Jewish tracks. A failure at every financial undertaking, who manages to eke out a precarious living by eradicating names from tombstones in a Jewish cemetary, as the good citizens of Buenos Aires hasten to clean up their resumes. Dad is owed a substantial debt for this service, from a plastic surgeon with a gambling problem. The debtor has no cash, so he insists on an unusual form of payment–nose jobs for the whole family
Which bring us to the issue of the Jewish nose. Here are this reader’s problems with the plot device:
- She has never believed in the Jewish nose, being the possessor of a rather small insignificant schnoz herself. (On the other hand, this same reader is the product of a divorce between a Jewish man and a shiksa. She was instructed to tell everyone she was Jewish throughout her childhood, particularly if anyone delivered an insult to the Jews. She didn’t really know from Jewish. Under the old rules, she is NOT EVEN JEWISH without a conversion. Perhaps this is why she doesn’t have a Jewish nose?)
- (As a side benefit, this reader was thrilled to rediscover Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, for its poignant explications of Englander’s Yiddish expressions.)
- The Jewish nose, in any event, was the substance of many of those insults the reader had to contradict in various school yards, so to this day she bristles when it is mentioned.
- And isn’t the Jewish nose too comic a concept to use to portray the buildup of repression?
- (On the other hand, one of the few clearly Jewish girls in our reader’s high school DID get a nose job, and a left-wing lawyer she knew in her youth permanently changed his name from Goldstein to something more acceptable. So maybe Englander’s plot was pathetically realistic after all?)
- The reader has lectured non-Jewish family and friends alike, when they say someone “looks Jewish,” that there is no such thing. Look around at the congregation of her very own Jewish Renewal synagogue. All body types, hair colors, facial features–even a few people of color!
SO–the intrepid reader conducted anecdotal research. She asked two acquaintances, both orthodox Jews, what they thought. One, as it turns out, was quite proud of her own Jewish nose. The other had concluded that most stereotypes of Jews were indeed true. (Presumably, though, not as justification for gas chambers or the destruction of Israel.)
In any event, in Englander’s book, character development is clumsy at times, and the prose is often clunky. None of this matters, though, as the parents’ pain at the unexplained indeterminate loss of their son mounts. One scene in particular–the father’s meeting with a haunted soul whose job it is to push unconscious youths out of airplanes and into a huge river– positively hums with evil.
Englander has been touted as the premier Jewish voice of his generation. I’m not sure about all that–I find him odd, quirky, not so easy to understand. Yet The Ministry of Special Cases was worth the effort. You might want to give it a try.